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Blogs Coffee House

Yes, Brexit could very easily lead to the break-up of Britain

18 January 2016

4:53 PM

18 January 2016

4:53 PM

Oh, look, it’s time for another episode of Jocksplaining. That is, time to remind some people south of the wall that what’s obvious to them is not at all obvious to the folk north of the wall.

There has been, in recent days, a flurry of articles claiming that, look, there’s no need to worry about a British exit from the EU because it will have no negative consequences whatsoever. You certainly shouldn’t think that it might prompt fresh demands for a new referendum on Scottish independence (even though the SNP say it might) and you really shouldn’t think such a referendum might produce a Yes vote (even though the most recent poll on the matter says it would). There’s nothing to see here. Shut-up, everyone.

Granted, some of these articles have been written by noted dunderheids such as Bernard Jenkin (dealt with by my friend Chris Deerin, here) but others have come from more outwardly respectable characters, including Henry Hill and Christopher Howarth. I am sure they are convinced by the credibility of their arguments; the trouble is those arguments are not connected to the mood in Scotland. (Hill is in the increasingly unusual position of being a southron Tory who thinks the UK is actually more important than the EU.)

We would be in uncharted waters were all this to happen. But that is also true of everything after Brexit. Outers tell us that, well, of course, there’d be no difficulty in arranging a free trade area between Britain and the EU even as other Outers also tell us that Scots would never vote for independence because doing so would risk trade tariffs at the Tweed. Britain is more important to Scotland than the EU. So you couldn’t afford independence. Got it, Jock?

Now, sure, perhaps an independent Scotland would not immediately be a member of the EU and perhaps, too, the terms on which it would be admitted might prove disagreeable. But it seems most unlikely that if the UK left the EU then a new state, cleaved from the UK, that wanted to be a member would find its application blocked. And so dark warnings of tariffs at the Anglo-Scottish border cannot sensibly be separated from the suggestion there might be tariffs at Calais too. Just saying.

The Brexiters also tell us that the Scots – sorry, the canny Scots – are risk-averse and demonstrated that caution as recently as September 2014. Why would they choose differently some time in the future when the economic prospectus for independence might be less attractive than it was in 2014?

A fair question, only slightly undermined by the fact that 45 percent of Scots endorsed a plan for independence that, its critics complained, offered no credible answers on the EU, currency and fiscal affairs. So why not 51 percent next time? Almost no-one in South Britain thought 45 percent was possible, in large part because they spent next to no time listening to people who actually live in Scotland. They were warned, however; they just chose to ignore the warnings. And they are doing so again because what seems incredible to one person can seem wholly plausible to another.

It may well be that the optimum moment for independence has passed; that does not mean independence has become impossible. Circumstances change and if you think that they can change in such a way as to make independence a folly, you must admit they can also change in ways that make it seem desirable.

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Which in turn means that if you think the survival of the UK as it is presently understood is a matter of importance then you need to be wary of rushing to actions that might imperil that survival.

Sure, Brexit might not trigger fresh and persuasive demands for independence but what if it did? Would you then recant your enthusiasm for Brexit on the grounds its attendant risks and uncertainties, within merely the domestic arena, were too great? Would you think it an undesirable gamble? Or would you, as seems more probable, pour yourself another gin and tonic and declare that it’s a price worth paying even in the vanishingly unlikely event you were asked to pay the price? Which of course you would not be, because, reasons.

I struggle to care even a farthing about the EU but I do care rather more about the UK. Which is why the total dismissal of any negative consequences of Brexit is as infuriating as it is familiar. The Outers, like their Scottish Nationalist counterparts in 2014, assure us that everything will be bonny and blithe if they get their way. It is an infantile assumption that deserves every ounce of scorn poured upon it. With any luck, as with the Nats, it will help them lose.

It also, in the case of Scotland and England, ignores the manner in which politics is not just a question of accountancy. It is about how we see ourselves and how we think of ourselves. Brexiters understand this when it comes to the EU – a free people, trading with the world, liberated from the chains of Brussels and Strasbourg! – while ignoring it when it comes to the future of the UK.

Support for the Union – the British Union, that is – has never been more provisional or contractual. The idea of independence cannot be put away or dismissed as unthinkable. It is plainly thinkable and thoughts, once thunk, cannot be unthunked.

So imagine a situation in which, just for the sake of argument, Scotland voted 65-35 (as the latest poll suggests might happen) to stay In but the UK as a whole voted 51-49 to Leave. That would be a clear, unambiguous, declaration of difference between Scotland and England. (A reminder, too, that though the Scots and the English largely think alike on most subjects, europe is a large and, in fact, ever-heftier exception to that general rule.)

Sure, it would be a decision made by Britain for Britain but it would not be universally perceived as such in Scotland. Here it would be seen by many people as though Scotland – at present much more than a region but not quite a state – was being forced to leave the EU despite manifestly preferring not to.

And that would change things. It would leave people here questioning whether Britain was still home, whether there was still a future here. At the very least, it would open space for a fresh discussion on this question. What kind of country is this? What kind of country would it like to be? If one jig is up, another ship can sail too. Perceptions would shift; impressions would change.

I assure Brexiters that a post-Brexit indyref campaign that argued Scotland cannot afford to be independent or in the EU if England is not is an argument that cannot be won with honour even if it were won at all. It would leave many Scots thinking, Well, maybe that’s true. But we’ll no be told that by the likes of you. We’ll make our own decisions, for ourselves, for better or even for worse.

Now you may object that would be irrational, but voters are not perfectly rational calculating machines. Nor should they be expected to be. In this instance, the picture would be one in which Scotland is being told by England to do things it does not want to do. That’s a prospect guaranteed to make Nats out of Yoons. Why, I could be tempted to vote Yes in such circumstances myself.

The EU question, in this area, is not really about the EU at all. It’s about Britain. Voting to stay is not necessarily a declaration of faith in the EU but for many Scots it will be a proxy for a declaration of faith in the UK. The single greatest cause of nationalist sentiment is not anti-English animus (though that certainly exists) but, rather, the decline of the idea of Britain. I ask only this: would leaving the EU reverse that decline or exacerbate it? Eurosceptics would doubtless herald a new Britannic age post-Brexit; in Scotland these matters would, I am pretty sure, be seen differently.

More than that, viewed from here, a vote to stay In would also be a vote to avoid having another referendum on independence. One that would, most probably, be uglier and nastier than was the case during the generally even-tempered referendum of 2014.

In the end it is simple and it comes down to this: Is there a risk Brexit might lead to the break-up of Britain? People who’ve been wrong about everything in the past tell us there isn’t. Other people, including many people who actually live in Scotland, suggest there is a risk. Perhaps it is only a small risk; it remains, I think, a risk. An entirely avoidable one, too.

So this is what it ends as: I know what you’re thinking Brexiters, ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But [being that this is a powerful set of constitutional problems] you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk? 

 

 

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